The resounding “meh” I felt when I previewed Becoming Elizabeth (2022) last year has not dissipated after watching the first three episodes of the actual series on Starz. I’ll say it again: have we not seen enough of Queen Elizabeth I of England onscreen already? The 16th century is my historical happy place, and I got into all this stuff because of Elizabeth R (1971), so I’m not a hater by any means. Au contraire, it’s because I love and adore this era, the history, and the costumes that I don’t need yet another frock flick covering the same old story with the same old historical figures and the same old frocks! Let’s go deeper. Let’s tell the lesser-known stories. Or if take a more nuanced, even sideways look at some of the obvious stories. I suppose someone thought Elizabeth’s early years is “different” enough from movies and TV shows about her reign but UGH no, not the way this is already shaping up.
Folks, it’s a slog with trite dialog, generic acting, and a plot that just barely hints at the history while veering from incredibly boring to incredibly offensive. Let’s just address the elephant in the room: in this show, the very much fully adult Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen) is shown grooming a 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg) and taking complete and total advantage of his position for his own sexual gratification. He victimizes her under the guise of flirtation and jockeying for power at court, and it’s disgusting. What’s worse, the show doesn’t even judge him for it, at least not in the first couple episodes! The whole thing is painted as “sexy” because he’s so “charismatic” and she’s so “romantic.” BARF When I wasn’t falling asleep due to the tedious so-called political machinations, I was horrified by the scenes where Seymour all but rapes Elizabeth (the show is vague on what physical acts occur but he does kiss and touch her a lot) and coyly asks for her “consent,” which is a shitty joke given the age and experience differences between them.
Now, that may well be historically accurate — Seymour’s attentions to Elizabeth were considered scandalous in the period! But accordingly, there should be some judgement of this relationship in the show as well. Elizabeth’s maid, Kat Ashley (Alexandra Gilbreath), looks a little shocked at some of Seymour’s actions, sometimes, a bit, kind of. That’s it. Nobody else notices or cares much when they spend time together alone or he’s outrageously flirty and suggestive with her.
Then there’s the notorious scene where Seymour cuts off Elizabeth’s “mourning” dress with the assistance of Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine). Here, it’s shown with Elizabeth’s assent, and she enjoys the “jest.” Kat and also Lady Jane Grey (Bella Ramsey) witness the incident and do nothing, say nothing, with only Kat looking slightly shocked. This is just part and parcel of Seymour getting it on with Elizabeth and her enjoying it, according to this sexist TV show. And while we may never know what the real Elizabeth’s experience of these events was, that’s beside the point — it’s grossly misogynistic to not frame this as an older man sexually preying on a young woman.
Oh, and speaking of travesties, this show’s portrayal of Catherine Parr reduces her to a political schemer and back-biter who also wants a lot of fucking. Hardly the woman who wrote The Lamentation of a Sinner in 1547, her third book promoting the new Protestant faith.
Costumes in Becoming Elizabeth
The show does look moderately pretty, so I guess we can discuss the costumes even while the first couple episodes are highly problematic. At least the costumes aren’t a schlock-fest like most of the Starz historical attempts. In the first three episodes that have aired, things look pretty solid for the year 1547 at the death of Henry VIII and ascension of Edward VI.
This is the first big period production for costume designer Bartholomew Cariss, and he’s starting off alright, and I’ll give him props for working with The Tudor Tailor folks on the French hoods. But in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily, he talks about making Elizabeth an “emo teen” and Catherine Parr “bohemian.” Everybody eye-roll!
OK, let’s start with some of Elizabeth’s costumes. The very first scenes annoyed me:
Elizabeth is in a robe while her siblings are fully dressed, and I find that’s a cheap way to visually make her seem younger and more vulnerable. More so, I’m annoyed that the robe is a random fantasy elf gown instead of a historical 1530s-40s English loose gown. Put a pin in that, it’ll be a low-key theme.
Cariss said in Women’s Wear Daily:
“We wanted Elizabeth to feel like a teenager. We wanted to give her [elements] like how young modern emo teenagers might have a long jumper with cuffs they pull down and they hide under. We wanted to try to give her that equivalent, so we worked on having that effect.”
Does he mean this kind of angel-wing elf robe? IDK.
I do appreciate how Edward’s first outfit is a nice nod to this portrait:
And I’m LOVING the embroidery that’s showing up in this series so far, especially Elizabeth’s smock covered in cute little red critters.
She wears it underneath that annoying elf coat too.
The shape of the smock is Italian like this:
But the embroidery has to be inspired by this one:
Embroiderer Cathryn Avison has posted a little bit of her work for the show on Instagram. Hope she posts more!
Once Elizabeth is fully dressed, things generally conform to the Tudor standard a la this well-known portrait:
You can see the same style in the gown she wears at court, trimmed in ermine along with all the members of the royal family.
Then at home, she often wears these gowns that tie in the front.
Kat Ashley wears the same style gown, but looser. And in a few scenes, Elizabeth wears only her smock and kirtle, which at other times are worn under the tie-front gown.
These type of gowns with front tie closures are especially seen in the 1527 sketches by Hans Holbein the Younger of Thomas More and his family. The final painting made from these sketches has been lost, but there’s a 1592 version painted by Rowland Lockey that’s similar.
While these women may have been pregnant while wearing this type of gown, I don’t know that the style was exclusively a maternity gown. I liken it to empire-waist dresses today — sure, women wear them because it’s a comfortable and flattering style during pregnancy, but non-pregnant women also wear empire-waist dresses, sometimes for comfort and sometimes for fashion. How people wear clothes has never been monolithic.
Similar tie-front gown styles also turn up in this period outside of England…
There were more styles of fully front-laced gowns worn by upper-class women across Italy and German worn throughout the 16th century. So plausible, IMO. Costume designer noted in that WWD interview: “We delved into paintings of the era, the Hans Holbein obviously, but also looking abroad to Giovanni Battista Moroni, who was Italian.” Maybe some of that Italian influence leaked over here? Who knows.
Most of Elizabeth’s costumes look good, but being Frock Flicks, I have to point out when things go wrong! Like another elf outfit when Elizabeth goes hunting with Robert Dudley (Jamie Blackley).
I have no problem with her riding astride and she even could be wearing bifurcated garments of some kind — there’s certainly suggestions that women like Catherine de Medici and Mary Queen of Scots wore some kind of pants under or possibly even instead of skirts to ride. But that garment would obviously look more like men’s pants or a bloomer-type shape than, say, stretchy leggings:
I do like the gloves though; they’re reminiscent of any number of extant 16th- and 17th-c. originals.
Yeah, there’s a lot of free-flowing hair, but it’s specifically in “casual” situations, like this hunting scene (although, damn, I’d want to have my hair all tucked up instead of flowing around and getting tangled!) and at home. The women’s hair is styled and worn with appropriate headgear at court and other formal scenes. As Bartholomew Cariss said:
“We knew there are so many enthusiasts of the Tudor era, so we wanted to do something that those people would enjoy. We won’t be without our critics because they can be sticklers for absolute authenticity. Some of them are pointing out that headgear would have been worn all the time. Well, at the same time we’re making a drama and we didn’t want to weigh down the actors, so we created a whole world and we all collaborated so well to create the show we wanted to make.”
Looking at Catherine Parr, she follows the same general lines Elizabeth and other ladies with classic Tudor gowns. In her very first scene, she gets nice embroidered collars.
But later she’ll let her hair down, literally and figuratively.
Her gown looks of the period, but you can see, especially in the hair, what costume designer Bartholomew Cariss is talking about in this interview:
“We very much wanted to create this bohemian attitude and I actually had a beautiful, contemporary image that was on my mood board that was the starting point. It was an image from the ‘60s or ‘70s, but it just conveyed the whole idea.”
In episode two, Catherine wears a really nice repro of this 1545 portrait, even though the scenes are kind of dark and don’t show off the gown very well.
Edward gets the most formal clothes of all the men, appropriately enough since he’s the new king. He’s the only one of the men to wear the big-shouldered coat style that was so typically Tudor. It helps the young boy look both more formal and imposing, but also a little like he’s a boy playing dress-up in his father’s clothes.
Mary is on the right of Edward in the above photo, and her gown is similar to this 1544 portrait.
Lastly there’s Lady Jane, who has a small and perfectly appropriate wardrobe suited to her place in the drama. No complaints there.
I’ll try to keep watching and check in at the end of the series, but I doubt I’ll enjoy it. File this under “The Things I Do For You!”
Have you watched the first episodes of Becoming Elizabeth?